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19 Tips for [Inter]national Travelers: Adventurer Edition!

…or, 19 Ways to Avoid Killing Your Travel Addiction

Two years ago, I’d never been on a plane. Since then, I’ve traveled through Scotland, Germany, Austria, Yosemite National Park and Italy with my travel buddy (i.e. my mom).

In our first few whirls about the globe, we felt firsthand the stresses, delights and wish-we-did-that moments of traveling through Europe. We won’t be conquering Italy’s roads anytime soon, but I’ve come away a conqueror in another area: travel logistics.

To help you on your journey to conquering airplanes and continents alike, I’ve teased out a list of wish-I’d-known-that guidelines. While they are from a landscape photographer’s perspective, they aren’t limited to shutterbugs. (I have a post just for photographers in the works though!) Travel connoisseurs, hikers or folks who generally just want to enjoy gorgeous views away from tourists may find these sanity-preserving tips useful.

1. Travel Lighter-than-Light

Americans have a lot of stuff—leave it at home. Follow the “one-trip” rule: pack only as much as you and your companions can drag around in a single trip, without return trips to the car (hat tip to Elia Locardi).

Realistically, I take it a step further: imagine you are coddling a cup of coffee, a bag of muffins and your friend’s jacket in a busy airport. Now get your bags.

The Other Car

For the two of us, this works out to 4 bags total—2 of which are on wheels (a checked bag and carry-on) while the other 2 sit on top (one checked, the other a carry-on duffel-bag). That’s plenty for the average tourist, but admittedly a near impossibility if you’re taking a hobby with you (i.e. photography and Plein Air painting).

Sound extreme? Read on. (And if it doesn’t, major respect—I’ve got a long way to go!)

2. Take Just the Clothes on Your Back

My packing habits may make nose-wielding companions cringe, but you don’t have to smell or look like a scavenger to travel ultra-light.

I’m a light packer by nature, but without being methodical I often come back with ⅔ of my laundry unused. If I spend more care on packing (fewer) clothes, it forces me to research the weather patterns and potential stops.

For my adventuring regime, I’ve settled on a modest packing list:

  • 1 shirt per 2 days
  • 1 pair of socks per 2 days
  • 1 hoodie and a light, compact winter jacket (like a packable down jacket).
  • 1 extra pair of jeans or shorts (besides the pair you wear on the flight) in case things go south.

Update: here’s my up-to-date one bag packing list for digital nomads.

Whites can easily be the bulkiest part of your wardrobe, and it’s not an area to skimp in, so consider investing in some silk underwear.

Finally, plan on doing a load of laundry halfway: pack with the previous guidelines for ½ the trip duration, plus 1 day. For example, if you’re traveling for 12 days, pack like it was a 6 + 1 = 7 day trip (3 shirts). $15 for a load of laundry is worth fewer bags, less (back) stress and added ease getting around public transportation.

3 shirts for a 12 day trip may seem unrealistic, but don’t forget you already have an extra outfit: what you’re wearing now! And if you spend your time exploring instead of peering into your wardrobe, you may not mind wearing the same shirt twice.

3. The Roller Coaster Test, i.e. Explore Hands-Free

During our short trip in Italy, reading glasses met the pavement 5 times, our primary credit card went missing at almost every restaurant and we (briefly) gave up our keys for lost.

I highly recommend buying a high quality money belt to organize your essential paraphernalia—make sure you don’t mind wearing it under your shirt. Here’s the one I’ve used.

The Italian Way

Second, take the Roller Coaster Test. This won’t require a trip to Six Flags before your expedition; just ask yourself if you could take all your personal effects (purse, camera bag, glasses…) on a roller coaster. If not, leave them behind at the hotel or in your car, and stick just the essentials in your money belt.

Don’t even think about bringing your Michael Kors purse. Or anything that isn’t strapped to you. You will lose it. And stress yourself out. That’s no fun for you or your traveling buddies.

4. Pack Pack Again

Packing is like writing a blog post: it takes a few passes before it’s ready for the world. So take advantage of do-overs and do a mock packing session a couple months before takeoff. A little too tight? Pack again, and take advantage of any wannabe containers, like plein air easels.

A week before your flight, pack again and make sure everything still fits comfortably within guidelines. Make sure to check for updated weather forecasts so you can repack with more appropriate attire.

If you can’t leave the bag packed for a week, make sure to have all zippers sealed and ready 2 days before your flight. About this time, panic sets in and kindly reminds you of everything you forgot. If you panic early enough, you’ll still have time to run last-minute errands and repack when your carry-on exceeds airline restrictions.

Montepulciano Villa

For our trip to Italy, we packed 3 months in advance, then 2 weeks out, then 3 days before. It saved us major inconveniences when we discovered some of our luggage had disintegrated, or that some important toiletries needed replacement.

5. Don’t Get Hangry at Me!

Grumpiness is well documented to accompany hunger, and is colloquially called “hangriness.” Compounded with the stress of a foreign environment, hunger can turn your docile travel buddy into Grumpy Cat.

Prevent hangriness: don’t make food decisions when you’re hungry! It will make you illogical and irritable, so you’ll settle for unreasonably priced junk food and fume while you munch.

Instead, eat before you’re hungry, then relish in the scientific studies which suggest you will eat less overall by avoiding starvation.

6. Water Water Everywhere

Always carry water. Don’t wait until you’re thirsty to tank up: it will often be inconvenient, time consuming and expensive. Get enough water for the trip at a gas station or grocery store and leave it in the car so you can refill a backpack-friendly bottle. (Pro tip: Sparkling water is awesome!) Exercise and water are natural appetite suppressants, and will help prevent “hangriness.”

And if the thought of reusing a plastic bottle doesn’t thrill you, refill in style with a space-friendly, collapsible water bottle!

7. Passing Through is for Tourists

Dom zu Salzburg

There are people who like to “hit” all the major towns of a region, see the shops and sights, then move on (usually spending less than a day for a couple cities), but unless you like the beaten path, avoid the big cities and travel short distances from your hotel. Plan to stay 2 nights at minimum: if you’re scheduling a 2 week trip to another country, plan on booking no more than 5 hotels.

Travel is already stressful and time consuming, so don’t waste your trip and energy getting from place to place!

8. Some Pros Take the Bus

Evaluate public transportation carefully. Few states in the US boast decent infrastructure, so the inexperienced (like myself) can be daunted by the bus schedules and train stops. In some countries though, it’s worth every ounce of anxiety!

Driving a personal vehicle around Italy almost ruined the first half of our trip, and was a little pricey. We were amused to find that the train system was ubiquitous even in the tiny villages we visited, and buses covered the rest at dirt cheap rates!

The same can’t be said for all countries however…

9. Some Pros Rent a Car

Renting a car is cheap (well, if you’re over 25) and can provide unparalleled exploratory freedom in the right countries.

Winding Through Lago di Como

Outside Edinburgh, Scotland is relatively traffic free and a delight to drive through. The best views are literally off the main road, so sightseeing is as easy as pulling over.

Driving in Austria and the Bavarian regions of Germany is similar, so make sure to research the country’s public transit system and check with your travel cohorts to ensure rental will be less stressful.

10. Square Wheels Might Work Better

If you’re tempted to bring lots of wheeled luggage, consider dragging your 50 lb. bags through gravel, up stairs and through buildings without elevators or escalators. You’ll discover quickly how little of that luggage you really “had to bring.” On the other hand, layovers and transit to/from an airport is no fun when your shoulders bear all the weight, so find a balance between wheeled vs un-wheeled luggage.

I recommend a single (lightweight) wheeled bag and one backpack per person. Then, if you must trek through gravel driveways or up 300 steps in Positano, you won’t indulge your hangriness.

11. Sideloading Backpacks

I’ve traveled with my handsome daypack as a personal item my last two trips. The side-access zipper is awesome for pulling out my laptop from an otherwise cramped bag.

Piazza San Carlo

Well, it was awesome until I forgot to zip it. I later emptied the bag for use around Turin, Italy. With the bag mostly empty, it was pretty easy for the laptop to slide in and out, so when I grabbed the bag and slung it over my shoulder in the bathroom, my laptop ended up smashed on the tiled floor. It bent my MacBook body in ways I didn’t think were possible with classical physics, but miraculously it survived. (Another tip: back up your epic keynote presentation on Dropbox.)

Key takeaway: if you are going to use your sideloading backpack around the city, double check that zipper.

12. Laptop, Really? Bring an iPad.

For that matter, do you really need to bring a laptop? Every pound counts when you have to sling it in airplane bins and up 10 flights of stairs. Even the retina MacBook Pros pack some notable weight and bulk, so unless you have an ultra-thin 12” MacBook, opt for a tablet. There’s an app or adapter for just about anything you’ll need (except backing up SD cards, sorry photographers).

13. Smartphone = Life

Beyond my front door, I pretty much rely on my iPhone for everything. Looking up reservations. Airplane tickets + gate changes. Translation. Restaurants. PDF’s of road signs. Maps + GPS in uninhabited haunts or teeming metropolises. Cut the Rope during layovers. If I didn’t have my smartphone and travel apps, I wouldn’t have the nerve to travel. Period.

Yes, decry me as a smartphone dependent, but it makes travel feasible for the average adventurer. So make sure you have a backup of your phone, and while you’re at it, bring a backup phone (easy if you aren’t traveling alone). And…(cringe)...get a paper map just in case.

Half Dome

Forget about purchasing special voice plans—spend the money on a data plan. Internet access will get you out of a lot of scrapes.

Your phone is guaranteed to die when you need it most, so purchase a car adapter and thank yourself in advance.

14. Travelzoo & co.

Travel deals from Travelzoo, Groupon, etc. are great if you are flexible and live within driving distance of New York’s JFK airport (where most international flights layover). However, customizations will often put you back at standard prices, and at the cost of flexibility.

Unless you can grab a travel deal and follow the itinerary to the letter, you may not be saving much (if anything). So make sure to crunch numbers on your own before booking through an agency.

15. Book and Rebook

It’s always prudent to book your flight, car and lodging a few months in advance, but try to get free cancellation where possible.

Sentinel Tree

The week and day before your reservation, check rates again. If there are too many unreserved rooms/cars, the rates will often plummet as hotels/rental agencies try to attract last minute sales.

Car rentals are especially notorious for drastic price variations. On every trip, rebooking a day before arrival has cut the rental price in half. On hotels, I’ve saved a more meager 10–20%.

16. Leave the Shoe Gallery at Home

“No one will be looking at your feet.”

Sage advice, Gustave.

Just bring waterproof hiking shoes. You don’t have to look like a courtier to impress the locals, though you might bring a compact pair of comfy shoes for the hotel and dinner.


17. Get Off the Highway

Make liberal use of the no toll roads and no highways options when looking up routes in Google Maps. They may take 2–3 times as long, but often lead to photographer gold.

Google Maps: No Toll Roads or Highways

18. To-Go Groceries

Go cheap on breakfast and lunch with high calorie groceries; this will allow you to see the sights and landscapes during the best hours of the day, instead of wasting $$$ and precious hours searching for food (usually while cranky, see above tip about when to eat).

But treat yourself at dinner—you’ll sleep better and enjoy reminiscing over the day’s experience while planning the next over a quiet meal.

19. When Lost

Traveling with someone(s)? Plan on going separate ways at any point? Get walkie talkies.

Cell coverage in the cities will probably be fine, but minutes can be expensive, and if you are following tip no. 7 on not being a tourist, you will find yourself walking through unreal landscapes and tiny villages with no cell coverage.

So get a long range walkie talkie handset. Or purchase a fancy iPhone conversion kit like Beartooth, which will also show you where your lost companions wandered to.


I’m Addicted, Now What?

It’s funny, 2 years ago I didn’t like travel (well, the idea of it at least). I watched my brother visit England in high school and didn’t envy him in the slightest: how could scones and Big Ben make up for the terror of driving in London?

So when I was invited to speak at ScotlandJS 2014, I figured the agonizing 11 hour flight would fortify my opinion of travel. But over the 2 weeks of meeting people, cruising through unbelievable mountains and ethereal landscapes, my opinion eroded.

I came back addicted, but I also came back a conqueror: I had overcome my fear of travel.

Special thanks to Joshua Martin for help editing and compiling this post. Oh yeah, he blogs too!

Jonathan Lee Martin

Jonathan Lee Martin

Globetrotting digital nomad and fine art landscape photographer in Atlanta. Working remotely as a developer + international trainer, scaling mountains at twilight to discover non-touristy landscapes.

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